Early LDS leaders, at times, would speak out against other Christian denominations, often using fierce rhetoric to express their opinion. Personally, I do not feel that such language was an “attack,” in fact, such hyperbolic language was typical amongst religions of the day. Still, many anti-Mormons insist that these aggressive statements were “attacks” on the Christian faith. For the sake of argument, I’ll go along with that accusation.
In an anti-Mormon article I found online, they allege that “any effort to demonstrate that Mormon doctrine is unbiblical is not an attack, but merely a case of defending the Christian faith.” Their justification for this is that, “it was Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter-day Saint movement, who made the first assault by claiming that all of Christianity was an abomination in God’s sight.” Here, they are making reference to Joseph Smith’s First Vision, which reportedly happened in 1820, ten years before the formal organization of the LDS Church. Hence, they conclude that, “Mormonism’s attack on Christianity began before the LDS Church was officially organized.” After which, the summarize the story of Joseph Smith – History as follows:
Smith claimed that while he was praying in the grove he had been visited by both God the Father and Jesus Christ. When he asked these personages which church he should join, he claimed he was told to join none of them, “for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (Joseph Smith History 1:19). The first offensive was thus made. Emphasis in original article)
But does this really mark the launching of an “assault” before the formal organization of the Church? It certainly may seem that way, given the current information. However, as we begin digging into the historical evidence surrounding this information (which is conveniently left out by our friendly anti-Mormon), this charge begins to fall apart.
Now, what are the historical facts in this case? The First Vision as it appears in Joseph Smith – History was not recorded until 1838, and was not published until 1842 – eight years and twelve years (respectively) after the organization of the LDS Church. The first time the First Vision was recorded at all was in 1832 (still after the organization of the Church), and it was first published in 1835.
Both LDS and non-LDS historians generally agree, that the details of the First Vision were not widely known until after the organization of the Church. Some even suggest that they were completely unknown before 1832. Thus, the accusation that Joseph Smith launched a first assault prior to the organization of the LDS Church must be rejected.
Still, though not before the organization of the LDS Church, was this the “first attack”? Did it happen before any kind of attack on Smith, or the LDS Church? Once, the historical facts say otherwise. 1834, E.D. Howe printed the first bona-fide anti-Mormon book, Mormonism Unvailed, about a year before the First Vision was published for the first time. Howe’s book had been preceded by Alexander Campbell’s anti-Mormon pamphlet/tract “Delusions” in his periodical the Millennial Harbinger in February of 1831, once again this is about a year before the First Vision was first recorded (but not published).
Though these were the first actual anti-Mormon publications, researchers have recovered articles which speak negatively of Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon as early as June of 1829 (nearly a full year prior the organization of the LDS Church), with indications from both Mormon and non-Mormon sources in the nineteenth century that these derogatory articles began to circulate as early as the fall of 1827 – when Joseph Smith first claimed to have the Gold Plates.
Thus, the historical evidence indicates just the opposite – years prior to the establishment of the LDS Church, slanderous rumors were already beginning to circulate regarding Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon. By 1831, a full blown attack was underway, yet there is no indication that this was a “defense of the Christian faith” in response to an earlier “attack” by the Mormons.
One last comment, even if it could be shown that the declarations made in Joseph Smith’s First Vision were known and circulating prior to the publication of anti-Mormon materials; the justification of “any effort to demonstrate that Mormon doctrine is unbiblical” as “defending the Christian faith” has little merit. Criticizing LDS beliefs is not a “defensive” measure, it is offensive. If you are insulted by another person, you do not defend yourself by insulting them back – that is retaliation, not defense. A defense would involve denying the insult and explaining why it is not true. In the case of orthodox Christians attempting to defend themselves from Joseph Smith’s charges made by the First Vision, one would need to go about demonstrating that their churches are not “all wrong,” that their creeds are not an “abomination” and that their professors are not “corrupt.” This is scarcely, if ever, the tactic used by anti-Mormons, whose publications are generally aimed at destroying the Joseph Smith’s credibility and the LDS Church’s reputation, as well as misrepresenting LDS beliefs, doctrines, and practices.
Hence, the charge that Joseph Smith launched the first attack, in my opinion, cannot be regarded as more than a poor attempt by anti-Mormons to justify their actions. Historically, this claim is unsupported, and logically, it fails to serve its purpose as justification for the ongoing attacks by the critics.
1. To be clear, as a matter of faith, I accept that the events happened (in general) as described, in the year 1820. I accept (on faith) that Joseph really did see God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820, and had a conversation with them, I accept (on faith) that shortly thereafter he went to a Methodist minister and shared this experience with him and was treated hostilely, and that rumors circulated which caused a great deal of ridicule for him. I accept that all of that happened (approximately) as it is recorded in Joseph Smith – History. I do not necessarily believe it to be a precisely accurate history, but in its general details, I feel it is correct. That is what I accept on faith. But, when dealing with claims of a historical nature (such as who attacked first), one must reconcile that with the historical facts.